During her long struggle against Burma's generals, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has leaned heavily on her Buddhist faith. She has extolled the religion for allowing her a sense of inner freedom during her 15 years of house arrest, and said that Buddhist precepts such as "loving kindness" can guide Burma's democratic transition, fostering reconciliation with the military, instead of anger and revenge. Burma's pious have returned the cultural compliment, so to speak. Many of them see Suu Kyi as a near-bodhisattva, whose enlightened work and suffering on behalf of others deserves the utmost reverence.
But the more nationalistic face of this Buddhist tradition, brought into focus by recent violence directed against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, could yet derail Suu Kyi's attempts to forge a more democratic, inclusive government and to transcend the country's long history of bloody ethnic rivalries.
Suu Kyi has a Buddhism problem. Specifically, she faces an obstacle in the chauvinism and xenophobia of Burma's Theravada culture, which encourages a sense of racial and religious superiority among majority Burman Buddhists at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. Although the world has been largely focused on the drama between Burma's military leaders and "The Lady," fraught relations between ethnic Burmans, who make up 60 percent of the country's population, and the non-Burman minorities, who make up the remaining 40 percent, could leave the country politically fragmented -- and strengthen the military's hand just as it has been forced to loosen its grip.
This is why Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in 22 years, was right to call the fate of the ethnic nationalities issue the country's "defining challenge." It's also why this issue should be on the top of the agenda this week, when Suu Kyi comes to Washington to pick up a Congressional Gold Medal and meet once again with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited her in Yangon in December 2011. So far, Suu Kyi's response to the Rohingya issue has lacked the boldness she's shown on other national questions.
The anti-Rohingya violence in June, some of it committed by Buddhist mobs and some by Buddhist-dominated security forces, led to scores of deaths, the burning of settlements and a refugee exodus of 90,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh. There, up to 300,000 Rohingya refugees still languish in makeshift camps from the last anti-Rohingya pogrom 20 years ago -- part of what the United Nations calls "one of the world's largest and most prominent group of stateless people." The most recent influx prompted Bangladesh to shut its borders to any more Rohingyas, and in early August barred international NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders from providing any more aid, which these groups have been doing since the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported in late July that the Rohingya who remained in Rakhine, where the government imposed a state of emergency in June, were subject to arbitrary mass arrests, as well as abuse in custody. A U.N. special rapporteur echoed that finding, citing "serious violations of human rights committed as part of measures to restore law and order."